When Belief in Chance Surpasses Reason

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When Belief in Chance Surpasses Reason

The odds of some things happening by chance alone (like the creation of the universe and life) are highly improbable, and yet we know improbable things do happen. So how improbable does an event have to be to rule out chance alone? At what point should our doubts about something happening by chance alone cause us to reject that explanation as unreasonable?Design

If something is highly improbable to happen by chance it may still be reasonable to believe that it will happen by chance, depending on the probabilistic resources. The probabilistic resources are the number of opportunities there are to generate the event. In the game of roulette it is improbable that the ball will land in the red 16 pocket twice in a row. In two spins of the wheel there are 38×38, or 1,444, possible outcomes. Therefore there is one chance in 1,444 of the ball landing on the red 16 twice in a row. So that’s improbable. But if a casino worker has 1,444 opportunities to spin the wheel in a week, he will quite likely witness this improbable event during that time.

But how good are we at estimating the probabilistic resources for unlikely events? People realize that the odds of the universe and life itself coming into existence by chance alone are highly improbably but they may just think that the probabilistic resources are sufficient to make the unlikely event likely.  With enough time anything can happen, we might think.

A Coin Toss

William Dembski uses a coin-tossing scenario to illustrate the human tendency to over-estimate the power of our probabilistic resources. He tells the story of a man who had been arrested and convicted of running a crooked gambling operation. He was brought before the judge for sentencing and the judge decided it was appropriate to offer him a choice. He offered the criminal either ten years in prison or a term in prison that is determined by the outcome of a game of chance. Specifically, the judge tells him that he can leave prison as soon as he flips a coin and it turns up heads 100 times in a row. Or course the coin must be fair.

What should he choose? Ten years in prison or the coin-flipping option?

He might think, “Even if it takes two or three years, I’ll be better off than sitting in prison for a guaranteed ten years.” However, his accountant sitting behind him hands him a calculator and reminds him that the judge is one of the people he fleeced in his crooked casino. But what’s he supposed to do with the calculator? The accountant whispers “Two to the 100th power.” Then it comes back to him. As a casino operator he knows something about calculating probabilities. He punches in 2100 and sees the figure 1.2676506 x 1030.

He suddenly realizes that it’s a life sentence without any realistic possibility of parole. For any given 100-toss series, he would have only 1 chance in 1,267,650,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of getting all heads. The ten year window isn’t enough to give him a realistic chance of flipping 100 heads in a row. Demski says that if a prisoner flipped a coin once every five seconds for eight hours a day, six days a week for ten years, he would only generate 17,797,120 trials.  A hundred years isn’t even enough. A trillion years wouldn’t be enough. He should ignore his initial intuition and take the ten year sentence.

When It Is Reasonable to Think That Something Is Up

Imagine that the criminal decides to go with the coin-flipping option. He begins to flip a quarter in front of a surveillance camera, as required by the court to verify any winning result. After two days, the criminal calls for a prison guard and asks to have the tape reviewed. After viewing the tape of the criminal’s last 100 flips, the guard and the warden verify that, yes indeed, the prisoner flipped 100 heads in a row.

So what would the court conclude about the prisoner’s unexpected success? That the prisoner just got lucky on one of his first attempts? This is, of course, possible, though incredibly improbable. But knowing the odds and the prisoner’s probabilistic resources, the court, and probably you, would reasonably think that something else was up. The court would reasonably suspect that the prisoner cheated. So they investigate before releasing him, and sure enough, they find that the prisoner had snuck a biased coin into his cell.

When something happens that’s highly improbably to happen by chance alone, when there aren’t the probabilistic resources for it, it’s reasonable to suspect that there’s else something up, that more than chance alone was at play. What’s the more reasonable position to take in the case of our “lucky” prisoner? I’m not sure how many of us would feel comfortable stating that we believe it was just incredible luck. A lot of people would think that such a position is rather naive.

And yet when it comes to those who believe that “something was up” when it came to the creation of the universe and life itself – that, given the probabilistic resources for that, chance alone just isn’t a reasonable enough explanation – those who hold that position are somehow made out to be the naive, unreasonable, unscientific-thinking ones. Why is that?

I think that we should follow the evidence wherever it reasonably leads, even if that goes against any presupposition we might have. If the evidence says that something was probably up in the creation of the universe, like there being an intelligent designer directing it all, I think we should be open to that possibility, or at the very least, acknowledge that it’s reasonable for others to do so.

Source: Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer


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Posted on by Reasons for Hope 315 in Design, Misconceptions

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